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Cafe Flora

Cafe Flora, has become one of the United States' elite vegetarian restaurants, garnering press coverage in a number of national publications. It is no surprise, then, that the 14-year-old restaurant in Madison Valley is one of Seattle's most elegant vegetarian dining experiences. There are many wonderful treasures to be discovered here.

For starters, everyone should experience the joy of Cafe Flora's savory Rosemary Lemonade at least once in their lives. The drink, lightly sweetened with sugar, is nectar. It's also indicative of the creativity and panache that the restaurant's chefs bring to their work.

The warm salad of smoked mushrooms and spinach is among the best I have tried anywhere. Smoked crimini and shiitake mushrooms are saut?ed with leeks and dijon vinaigrette and mixed with fresh spinach leaves and toasted pumpkin seeds. The result is sensational.

You'll discover these and other gems in an expansive atmosphere of warm and soothing colors and festive decorations. The owners attempted to make the restaurant as light and open as possible to counteract Seattle's dark and gloomy weather patterns. So there are huge windows everywhere, both in the stylish main dining room and the new garden room--an indoor patio with a skylight, fountain and trees and shrubs. The works of local artists are featured on the restaurant walls, and change every few weeks. Classical music provides a soothing background.

Cafe Flora's chefs treat their creations as art, and the dishes are beautifully prepared. While the tab can run up at Cafe Flora faster than at any other Seattle vegetarian restaurant (lunch entrees average around $8, while at dinner, main dishes range from $11 to $17), most people find the wonderful atmosphere and delicious food are more than adequate compensation.

One of the best appetizers is the coconut tofu with sweet chili sauce. Similar to Vietnamese spring rolls, you assemble the marinated tofu, basil and cilantro inside lettuce leaves and dip it into a sweet sauce. The quesadilla appetizer combines black beans, smoked mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and pepper jack cheese in a flour tortilla (in a bold move away from convention, it's served with spicy pineapple salsa). In the rustic polenta starter, tender cornmeal cakes are seasoned with onion and garlic and topped with saut?ed mushrooms, onions, rosemary and tomatoes.

Salads range from the simple (local lettuces and wild greens dressed in an herbed balsamic vinaigrette) to the deluxe (the soba salad is comprised of buckwheat noodles tossed in a spicy peanut sauce with pistachios, accompanied by pickled red cabbage, broccoli, sea vegetables, enoki mushrooms and pickled ginger). The pear salad consists of endive, watercress and baby lettuces mixed with toasted walnuts, Bosc and red bartlett pears, a quince walnut oil vinaigrette and Oregon blue cheese.

While many diners' appetites will be satisfied with a salad or soup and an appetizer, there is ample reason to continue on to Cafe Flora's entrees. One of the most popular is the portabello wellington, a combination of grilled portabello mushrooms, mushroom pecan pate and saut?ed leeks wrapped in a puff pastry, served with a Madeira wine sauce. The grilled seitan fajitas dish will fool many customers into thinking they're eating steak, with its grilled and marinated wheat gluten strips, onions, bell peppers and spices wrapped in flour tortillas with chipotle refried beans, brown rice and guacamole. The seasonal vegetable plate will leave you filling satisfied yet energetic: seasonal vegetables are served with roasted Fingerling potatoes, brown rice, steamed red chard and curry marinated grilled tofu. Other entrees you might find tempting include an Indian chickpea stew and the Middle Eastern falafel sandwich.

Brunch is a popular affair at Cafe Flora on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and sometimes you may face a short wait before being seated. You can choose from egg dishes, pancakes and waffles, pizzas, sandwiches, salads and pastries. Some of the highlights: a vegan vanilla walnut waffle with fruit conserve, cornmeal thyme pancakes with black mission figs and Italian prunes in a port syrup, spicy scrambled eggs with bells peppers, jalapenos and smoked mozzarella cheese served with green chili pinto beans, and sundried tomato pesto pizza with spinach, artichoke hearts, toasted pumpkin seeds and herb marinated fresh mozzarella.

Over half of the selections on the lunch, dinner and brunch menus are vegan or available vegan. Cafe Flora's servers are trained to help diners with their food allergies, and can recommend menu options. The restaurant does use white sugar and honey in some of its dishes, particularly desserts and pastries, but generally has at least one vegan and one sugar-free dessert. Organic grains and vegetables are used when possible. Cafe Flora is open 7 days a week: M-F 11:30am-10:00pm, Sat 9-2 and 5-10, Sun 9-2 and 5-9. Its located at 2915 E. Madison, Seattle 98112. Restaurant phone number:206-325-9100. Catering: 206-322-3626. www.cafeflora.com.